Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

5. Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Look Now

cofIt was love at first listen. My devotion to Elvis Costello started when I wandered into a suburban Atlanta record store at the tender age of 16 and heard This Year’s Model blasting out of the sound system. I snapped up that album, Costello’s second, then and there, and returned to buy his equally brilliant debut, My Aim Is True, the next time I got paid. Dutifully, I purchased each successive release for many, many years, and saw him play live on three concert tours. Other than David Bowie, no solo artist takes up more space in my record collection. But as with any lengthy relationship, ours has had its rough patches. I’m lukewarm about Costello’s forays into genres outside his pop-rock wheelhouse, including classical music (The Juliet Letters) and country (Almost Blue). And sometime after 1989’s Spike, which featured his biggest U.S. hit, “Veronica,” the intensity of my ardour began to wane. In the years since, it’s dulled to a pleasant, comfortable-shoe familiarity. These days, I test-drive his latest efforts via streaming before committing to an LP or CD. I’ve never entertained the thought of “breaking up” with him – he’s meant too much to me in the past for that to happen. But the old magic has gone astray. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

6. Greta Van Fleet – Anthem of the Peaceful Army

cofAre these guys for real? That was my first impression upon hearing Greta Van Fleet’s full-length debut, a suspiciously spot-on paean to 1970s arena rock. “Age of Man” kicks off the album with an intro of pretty strings and flutes, evoking wandering minstrels at a Renaissance Fair. Then Joshua Kiszka’s voice, which rivals Rush’s Geddy Lee and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant in its lofty pitch, pierces the pastoral mood. “In an age of darkness, light appears,” Kiszka, 22, screeches, sounding for all the world like a leotard-clad, codpiece-stuffing rock star from the era of lava lamps and gatefold album sleeves. The rest of the band – Josh’s twin bro Jacob Kiszka on guitar, younger sibling Sam Kiszka on bass, and family friend Danny Wagner on drums – enters with a prog-rock wallop and we’re off with a sound that borrows a bit from Rush and similar groups and a whole lot from Led Zep. It’s all alarmingly reminiscent of a bygone musical style that fell out of fashion the moment the Ramones played their first gig at CBGB’s. So, these many years later, in an age when irony is king, one can’t help but ask, seriously, are these youngsters pulling our legs? Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

7. The Lemon Twigs – Go to School

cofI remember, way back in the mid-1980s, playing the debut album by They Might Be Giants for a former roommate, a semi-Goth type with a fondness for the gloomier realms of rock music. He balked at the wackiness of such songs as “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” and was downright offended by the use of accordion. “In 10 years, are you still going to be listening to this?” he scoffed. The joke was on him because TMBG has endured. Heck, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” alone has secured a lasting place in the pop pantheon, and the duo just recently released its 21st studio album. Will the career of the Lemon Twigs, another zany twosome from New York, be as long-lasting? Brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario, only 21 and 19, respectively – more millennials! – certainly have grand ambitions, and the talent to go the distance. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

8. Neko Case – Hell-On

cofIndie rock hero Neko Case is one of our most fearless songwriters. She seemingly has no qualms about laying bare her soul on each album she puts out, and her no-bullshit vocals drive the emotional honesty home. She’s also rather prolific, having released six previous solo efforts as well as collaborations with the Canadian bands New Pornographers and the Sadies. (My favourite project in her extensive discography remains 2016’s case/lang/veirs, a gorgeous and strikingly simpatico pas de trois with k.d. lang and Laura Veirs, both of whom contribute backing vocals here.) The sheer volume of her repertoire combined with her artistic daredevilry has resulted in a laudable but inconsistent body of work – as much as I’ve liked some of her albums, I can’t name one that I would call brilliant from first cut to last. Her latest is no exception, but it’s quite worthwhile nonetheless. Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final*) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

9. Superorganism – Superorganism

cofIn the rather grumpy intro to this blog series, I laid the blame for the current dire state of the music industry squarely at the overpriced sneakers of those cursed millennials. But I must grudgingly concede that not everything the Snapchat generation does is bad. Take my #9 pick for the best albums of 2018. Superorganism, a multi-national collective of whippersnappers that features a shockingly young lead vocalist in 18-year-old Orono Noguchi, has a backstory that couldn’t be more “new school.” Continue reading

Death by Streaming? My (Possibly Final) List of the 10 Best Albums of the Year

After two consecutive annual lists that have been mired in mellow indie rock, I’m happy to report that my picks for the best albums of 2018 are a bit more diverse – soul, folk, rafter-shaking arena rock, and even dubstep are represented, as are venerable masters and young guns. This year’s winners are also, as in the past, testaments to the art form. With one or two arguable exceptions, they hang together as cohesive works and are meant to be listened to in their entirety, from beginning to end. And not just these, but other worthy runners-up by Beach House, Fantastic Negrito, the 1975, and Christine and the Queens. 2018 really was an embarrassment of riches musically.

Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love in the early 2000s, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

A Toast to the Roast: Tucking into Britain’s Traditional Sunday Feast

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Photo by Andrew Burbanks, taken at the Cowshed in Bristol, England

Waaaaay back in the hot ‘n’ hazy days of summer—you know, eight weeks ago—I boldly proclaimed central air conditioning to be mankind’s greatest invention. Well, I take it back. (I’m a fickle blogger, aye, so I am.) That was warm weather me talking, high on salty sea breezes and sunscreen fumes. Chilly weather me, wrapped in a comfy, musty cardigan, pumpkin spice latte foam sloshed across my upper lip, is more inclined to bestow superlatives on autumnal pleasures. Snuggling with the spouse, so uncomfortable during the summer heatwave, earns high marks, as does binge-watching darker fare on Netflix, like The Haunting of Hill House. But the single greatest rite of fall has got to be gorging oneself to the point of delirium on an excessive feast, something Americans raise to an art form on Thanksgiving, which as I post this is just a few days away. (Lucky Canadians already had their Thanksgiving in October.) As a Yank myself, I should be pining for this annual jubilee of gluttony right about now, but I’ve discovered a U.K. equivalent that totally satisfies my expat hunger pangs. Even better, I don’t have to wait for a holiday; I can belly up to this gut-buster on any given weekend. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my definitive pick (at least until spring) for mankind’s greatest-ever invention: the British Sunday roast. Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

A Bloke Afloat: Getting Chummy with the English Seaside

btyWith the hottest summer on record in the UK nearing its inevitable end, it’s time to take stock of the personal highlights and lowlights of these past few muggy months. One definite lowlight: no central air conditioning in our flat! In the sweltering American South, where I grew up, central air is as essential to life as grits and saying “thank you, ma’am.” Here in England, the climate is usually less steamy. Most of the time my partner and I feel sufficiently cooled at home by opening windows and, of course, downing a few icy gin and tonics. This summer, as the weeks dragged on without any hint of rain and temperatures hovered in the high 20s C/mid-80s F, I was an ever-moist mess. Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Hello, Stranger, Would You Watch My Baby?
A Wary Former City Boy Struggles with Small-Town Neighbourliness

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Illustration by Jeff Cohen 

“British reserve” is a behavioural trait that’s allegedly so common in the UK it’s become a cliché.  Movies, books, even Brits themselves perpetuate the stereotype of a guarded people genetically predisposed to bottling up emotions and not making waves – “Keep Calm and Carry On” and all that. But if the cliché is true, someone neglected to tell the good folks of Southsea, the little laid-back village in which my partner and I now reside, nestled between the larger city of Portsmouth and the English Channel. After decades of living in sprawling, impersonal North American metropolises, we now find ourselves in close quarters with a community of characters who are anything but reserved. Indeed, they are an exceptionally chatty lot, alarmingly liberal with their warm greetings, all too willing to share intimate details about their personal lives, and trusting to a fault.  Continue reading

Absolute Beginner: The Adventures of a Middle-Aged U.K. Newbie

[Blogger’s note: I was born and raised in America, moved to Canada for love early in the new millennium, and recently relocated again, in my 50s, with my British-born spouse to the southern coast of his homeland. This is an occasional series about learning new tricks in Merry Old England.]

Lovely, Actually: Embracing Britain’s Cuddliest Expression

lovelypicIt was the afternoon of Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s nuptials and royal wedding-obsessed folks all over Britain, indeed the world, were bunched around TV screens, hankies at the ready, to watch the blessed event. But not me and my partner. We had skipped the live airing to hunt for discounted summer attire in Portsmouth’s scruffy city centre shopping district. (Though of course we caught the two-hour BBC recap later that evening. We’re not monsters.) Well into our leisurely stroll from our flat to the shops, we overheard a cheerful male voice approaching from behind. “Hello, Nan, it’s your favourite grandson!” the voice crooned in that pleasantly sing-song way in which many Brits speak. Being a world-class sleuth, I quickly deduced that he was talking to his grandmother via mobile phone. “What’s that, Nan?” the voice continued. “No, I’m not watching it. Don’t really have any interest. You? Ah, lovely. I’m sure it is a beautiful dress. Well, I was just calling to wish Auntie Gail a happy birthday. Is she around? Lovely! Ta, Nan!” Continue reading